New York Times: Iran leveled new accusations against Britain on Thursday in the crisis over 15 captured British sailors and marines, and withdrew a promise to free the only woman in the group, insisting that Britain admit fault before any captives were released. The New York Times
By ALAN COWELL
Published: March 30, 2007
LONDON, March 29 Iran leveled new accusations against Britain on Thursday in the crisis over 15 captured British sailors and marines, and withdrew a promise to free the only woman in the group, insisting that Britain admit fault before any captives were released.
Iran also released what it said was a second letter from a captured British sailor the woman, Leading Seaman Faye Turney urging Britain to withdraw its forces from Iraq.
For its part, Britain flatly refused any talk of negotiations and called the release of the letter cruel and callous, and said it would seek the United Nations Security Councils support in pressing Iran to release the captives.
With the latest developments the confrontation, now in its seventh day, seemed to have reached a point where neither side had left the other much room for a face-saving compromise. Deepening the sense of crisis, a senior Iranian official hinted that the captured troops might be put on trial for unspecified offenses.
Iran has not said where the sailors and marines are being held.
The dispute turns on rival claims about the whereabouts of the Britons when they were seized last Friday in disputed waters. Iran says they were more than 500 yards inside its territorial waters, but on Wednesday Britain produced satellite navigation coordinates to support its contention that the sailors were 1.7 nautical miles, or 3,400 yards, inside Iraqi waters, on a patrol approved by the United Nations and the Iraqi government.
After showing pictures of the captives on Wednesday, Iranian television showed film on Thursday of what seemed to be a lone British patrol boat as it was apprehended by an Iranian vessel with a mounted machine gun.
The broadcasts on both days included images of Seaman Turney, who is 26. Prime Minister Tony Blair called the decision to show pictures of her a disgrace.
What we have to do in a very firm way is to step up the pressure, Mr. Blair said in an interview with ITV Network. The important thing is we just keep making it very, very clear to the Iranian government it is not a situation that will be relieved by anything but the unconditional release of all our people.
What you cant do is end up negotiating over hostages, end up saying theres some quid pro quo or tit for tat. Thats not acceptable.
He added: We need all 15 released because they were doing their job under a U.N. mandate. There is no justification whatsoever for taking them in that way.
In what the Iranian authorities said was a second letter, Seaman Turney asked when British forces would withdraw from Iraq. It was dated Tuesday and addressed to Representative of the House of Commons.
The letter said, in part: I would like you all to know of the treatment I have received here. The Iranian people are kind, considerate, warm, compassionate and very hospitable.
Echoing the first letter, released Wednesday, this one said, Unfortunately, during the course of our mission we entered into Iranian waters.
But it broke new ground by urging a British withdrawal from Iraq.
Isnt it time for us to start withdrawing our forces from Iraq and let them determine their own future? it said. It was signed, Faye Turney 27/3/07.
Mr. Blairs office reacted angrily, issuing a statement saying, It is cruel and callous to do this to someone in this position, and to play games like this is a disgrace.
In Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Secretary General Ban Ki-moon of the United Nations told Irans foreign minister, Manouchehr Mottaki, that the Britons ought to be freed immediately.
The secretary general strongly suggested that they should be released, that this was an issue of great importance to the international community, said a United Nations official familiar with the breakfast discussion.
The official, who said he could not be quoted by name talking about a private meeting, said Mr. Ban avoided any discussion of Was it here, was it there, was it this, was it that?
Instead, the official said, Mr. Ban argued that like Tehrans defiance of Security Council resolutions on its nuclear program and its attempts to play down the Holocaust, this was another issue in which Iran has been on a course of isolating itself by its own actions.
He said the United Nations was not involved in mediating the dispute, which he described as bilateral.
IRNA, an official Iranian news agency, quoted a naval official on Thursday as saying that the Britons, in two inflatable, high-speed patrol boats from the frigate Cornwall, had entered Iranian waters several times before they were seized. The Iranian official said Iran had film showing intrusions. The Royal Navy says the sailors were ambushed as they completed an inspection of an Indian-flagged merchant ship in Iraqi waters.
IRNA also quoted from a letter sent by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to the British Embassy in Tehran demanding British guarantees not to intrude into Iranian waters in the future.
[A British Foreign Office spokeswoman said early Friday, without providing any details, that the government was giving serious consideration to the note from the Iranian government received at the embassy in Tehran, Reuters reported. She did not say when the note was received.”>
Iran also hardened its stance over the possible release of Seaman Turney. Initially Ali Larijani, the secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, had indicated that she might still be freed if Britain retreated from its intention to seek United Nations backing. He said that if we are faced with a fuss and wrong behavior her release would be suspended, and it would not take place.
Later, though, the Mehr News Agency in Tehran quoted a military official, Deputy Commander Alireza Afshar, as saying: The release of a female British soldier has been suspended. The wrong behavior of those who live in London caused the suspension. He apparently was referring to Britains plan to seek support from the United Nations.
Britain has already secured European Union support for its insistence that Iran acted illegally in seizing the 15 sailors and marines. A British spokesman, speaking in return for customary anonymity, said Britain would also continue with efforts to coax the United Nations Security Council to support its demand for the release of the troops.
Britain circulated a draft press release asking the Security Council to deplore Irans actions, but diplomats there said Russia was unlikely to accept any language asserting that Britain was operating in Iraqi waters, The Associated Press reported.
Late Thursday, the Security Council issued a press statement expressing grave concern and asking for release of the Britons, Reuters reported. The statements had been watered down considerably from the original British draft, Reuters said. Iran immediately responded that the statement was not helpful.
The dispute has added to the tensions over United States accusations of Iranian meddling in Iraq and Irans demand for the release of five Iranians held by American forces in Iraq.
The crisis has left Mr. Blair in a delicate position. Britain is in Iraq as a junior ally of the United States, a position that has cost him much of the political kudos he gained when he took office almost 10 years ago.
He has promised to step down this summer, raising the prospect that his final months could be marred by the vision of British sailors held by Iranian captors over whom he has no evident influence. The crisis has overshadowed completely what should have been a ringing success in Northern Ireland, where the archrivals Gerry Adams and the Rev. Ian Paisley agreed to form a power-sharing government on May 8.
That would bolster Mr. Blairs ambitions to mold a legacy of achievement. But British newspapers filled their front pages on Friday with photographs of Leading Seaman Turney wearing a black Islamic head-scarf, underlining the awkward position Mr. Blair is in.
The brutal truth is that Britain is not in a strong position, The Independent said in an editorial. Whatever the complexities of maritime boundaries, whatever the position in international law, the reality is that Iran holds British sailors and, with them, most of the cards.
Warren Hoge contributed reporting from Beirut, Lebanon.